This article originally appeared at the newyorktimes.com.
By David Greenberg.
CreditMarc Riboud/Magnum Photos
Fifty years ago, tens of thousands of people gathered in Washington to protest the Vietnam War. Here are some of their stories.
The Vietnam War is the only American conflict remembered as much for the opposition it sparked at home as for its battlefield victories and losses. Just two weeks after Marines landed at Da Nang in March 1965, crossing a new threshold of American military commitment in Vietnam, the University of Michigan held a “teach-in” for 3,500 students and faculty disturbed by the intervention. The next decade would experience an intensifying drumbeat of protests that were by turns intimate and gargantuan, educative and rowdy, radical and mainstream, and local and global in scale.
The October 1967 March on the Pentagon — immortalized in “The Armies of the Night,” Norman Mailer’s “non-fiction novel” — was at that point the largest antiwar rally ever staged. Coordinated by a coalition of antiwar groups known as the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (“the Mobe”), it brought between 70,000 and 100,000 protesters to Washington to pressure President Johnson to end the war. One key organizer, Jerry Rubin, who with Abbie Hoffman would soon launch the mischievous Yippie party, helped give the event its countercultural cast. He announced beforehand a stunt by the poet Allen Ginsberg and others to “levitate” the Pentagon — provoking curiosity, mockery and (as intended) headlines.
Most Americans didn’t endorse the Mobe’s demand for unconditional withdrawal. Though majorities faulted President Johnson’s handling of the war, as many favored a decisive escalation as an immediate pull-out. In deference to the mainstream groups participating, Mobe leaders warned militant leftists against misbehavior and jettisoned radical speakers like H. Rap Brown of the (now inaptly named) Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, who had threatened to bring a bomb.
The weekend began on Thursday, Oct. 19, a fundraiser featuring Robert Lowell, Mailer and Dwight Macdonald. On Friday morning, Mailer, Lowell and others gathered for a rally at the Justice Department where hundreds of draft cards were “returned.” The next morning, under sunny and mild skies, tens of thousands of protesters, mostly white, middle-class and young, gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to hear Phil Ochs and Peter, Paul and Mary, along with the inevitable program of speeches. Some 50,000 rally-goers then streamed over the Arlington Memorial Bridge toward the Pentagon, home of the Defense Department. There, some held to non-violent tactics, while others toppled the makeshift fences erected around the Pentagon, courting arrest. Still others approached the soldiers ringing the building, placing carnations in their rifle barrels. By the next morning, hundreds had been arrested.
What did it all achieve? News coverage suggested that antiwar activists had far to go in winning over the public. Commentary highlighted isolated acts of outlandishness, while conservatives focused on the presence of Communist groups. Though split about the wisdom of the war, Americans agreed overwhelmingly that, as one poll phrased it, peace marches amounted to “acts of disloyalty against the boys in Vietnam.” Still, in the near term, the march fueled the movement’s energy and surging sense of power and hope. But it also framed antiwar opposition for many as a countercultural project and in so doing served to widen the chasm between hawks and doves.
Recently, The Times asked more than 20 eyewitnesses — protesters, organizers, soldiers and reporters — to help tell the story of the march.